In Ecuador, ham manages to make its way into almost all foods without being identified, such as “vegetable quiche,” “lentil soup,” “salad,” etc. In addition, few Ecuadorians can understand vegetarianism — they often say, “Well, this is only chicken.” As a result, I sometimes felt like my own desire to reduce suffering (and CO2 emissions) caused a lot of anguish. Even poor supermarket staff would look at me in a stupor as I explained what tofu was, and they would insist no such thing existed in their country (it does). And any health benefits of being vegetarian were ruined in Ecuador, because I was reduced to eating a lot of bread to avoid meat.
Well, I think the universe is about to reward me for surviving as a vegetarian in Ecuador for 2 years — because Indonesians seem to get it.
Since we are staying at a co-worker’s house, we have a cook (household staff will be discussed in future posts). With Bruno off in Nairobi, I asked her to please make whatever Indonesian dish is vegetarian. The result — delicious, healthy, protein-packed tofu vegetable stir-fry and tempeh with red rice. It turns out, according to Wikipedia, tempeh “is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia.” It’s been here in Java for more than 200 years! I live among the original inventors of fermented soy protein (technically tofu is much older and from China, but that is relatively close). Fermented soy protein may sound a bit gross to some of you, but the authentic version, is rich and nutty. Tempeh contains even more protein, fiber and vitamins than tofu.
More importantly, perhaps, those foods were invented by people who adopted vegetarianism as part of their religion. Buddhism and Hinduism were the dominant religions of Java for centuries and are still present, though Islam is more prevalent now. Both of those religions encourage a vegetarian diet. The theologies are complex, but essentially they believe killing sentient beings is bad. People who do not practice these faiths still seem to respect it as an honorable characteristic.